Guest article by Rebecca Rahman
Two weeks ago, I sat in the front row of an event at American University to listen to Milo Yiannopoulos: a man who has called for the banning of immigrants on the basis of their faith—my faith. His vitriol has angered thousands of liberals and conservatives alike.
When I bought tickets for the lecture, I was livid. I had read his articles on Breitbart, and one article in particular stood out to me, entitled “Islam Is a Tarnished Brand in the West: Here’s How It Can Recover.” Although I didn’t concede to every point made in the article, I understood the overarching argument.
I went to the event wanting to expand on the ideas Yiannopoulos outlined. Waiting in line to ask a question, my anger shifted to panic as I watched the girl in front of me at the Q&A get harangued, making her leave the mic, head low.
When it was my turn, I took a deep breath. And spoke.
My question was on Islam, but I began with a statement condemning the bomb threats that both Milo and Christina Hoff Sommers have faced. I continued, asking Milo about his opinions of reformation and mass deportation, emphasizing that stigma against Muslims could only prevent modernization. I also mentioned the violence Muslims face in the United States while decrying the acts of extremism taking place in Europe.
Milo answered expressing his doubt of Muslim immigrants and their ability to tolerate western ideals. Although we didn’t reach an agreement, we talked openly, honestly, and with civility. Afterward he gave me a hug, and encouraged me to discuss my thoughts further.
And in that moment, a room full of Milo supporters applauded me.
They did not boo, they did not mock me (at least not all of them). They cheered. Some even consoled me when I later began to cry openly, overwhelmed.
This respect was not extended to others who went up to ask questions, and I understand why. Stephanie Black, who stayed quiet and simply held a sign for nearly two hours, was told to fuck off. And I understand why.
On one hand, Milo Yiannopolous has been labeled as a hate-filled, transphobic, Islamophobic, anti-feminist bigot. And to an extent he can be. He has statements suggesting that Trans women be decapitated among other things. But these are not meant to be taken seriously.
His style of rhetoric is a kind of provocateur with very liberal splashes of extra provocation and flamboyance. The reason he uses this narrative is because he has been threatened and banned from speaking. It isn’t meant to incite violence against others.
This style is being used to show how free speech can be limited or challenged, which he believes is wrong.
Additionally, he does not hate all people involved in the respective movements he criticizes. He has befriended feminists like Christina Hoff Summers and believes that feminism has “a good name” that has been sullied in the modern day.
He supports the work of Maajid Nawaz, a former extremist turned liberal think-tank head. He seeks to have open, respectful debates. He is driven to use an extreme narrative, and he hates when his voice is limited and taken away, before even having the change to speak and give his opinion. And I can sympathize with that.
On the other hand, there is a cruel irony when Milo supporters hurl death threats at activists like Noah Leibowitz, a fighter for Trans rights, for protesting against Milo.
When you watch on as women like Amancay Diana Sacayán are murdered in the streets, it is only natural to feel fear or anger to the people who trivialize it. It is unfair to ask women like her to temper their emotions. And after hearing Milo speak, I understand why transgender people and activists may not have felt able to listen to what Milo had to say, for it was a very painful experience.
And yet, despite the vitriol between activists and supporters of Milo’s ideology, there is common ground between the two.
Both parties have had their rights violated in some fashion. Milo by bomb threats and censorship, and Trans activists through oppression like the legislation in North Carolina.
And both groups want the same thing: to curb violence against people for their political opinion or their gender. Neither advocate for violence against the other.
With that, I firmly believe there is room for communication. There was a moment in that room where two people respected each other and were able to have a kind of understanding. I believe Milo was responsible for that. When I began to fumble my words he encouraged me to go on and reaffirmed my question.
Milo is not a monster to me.
This event taught me to be open and to listen. To listen to those who do not share my beliefs. To listen to them even when it makes me feel uncomfortable. I want a change, and I have found a way to do it: through calm, rational debate.
I know what I am asking for is more of a preachy pipe dream than reality. However, I cannot condone an us-vs-them mentality. That same mentality drove people to war and violence and is the same mentality that killed members of my family. A mindset so seething in hate that innocent people suffered.
Milo has been threatened for speaking up. So has Noah. Both are at risk of attack for their views. But I don’t want that to happen. I want there to be discussion–honest discussion–based on mutual respect.
So what can we do? Again, we listen. We listen to each other. We listen and then critique, don’t interrupt, and find similarities. Milo and I are similar in the idea that we support a change for my religion and that the infringement of free speech is not okay.
Milo isn’t a monster, and neither is Noah.
They are both people who are tired of their rights being infringed upon. There is a place for common ground here. And I hope that both open themselves to it. If there is anything you take away from the lecture, it’s that what I said at the end of Milo’s Q&A is true. I don’t want things to be like this, where people dehumanize each other through derogatory slurs.
Leaving the event, I felt a deep sense of discomfort listening to Milo speak, but I realized that I would’ve rather felt that than feel nothing at all. I would rather hear Milo, than hear silence.